On August 1, 2014, the Supreme Judicial Court rendered its second decision (no doubt of many) on the cases coming in on the new Alimony Reform Act. The case is an appeal from a decision of Justice Amy Blake, who has just been elevated to the Appeals Court. The opinion in Zaleski v. Zaleski was written by Judge Fernande Duffly, who has been a domestic relations practitioner, a Probate Court Judge and now a Supreme Judicial Court Justice. She is the only one on the SJC to have a background in family law; as a result her opinions are extremely helpful.
This case makes four major points:
- The Probate and Family Court judges still have great, even expanded discretion.
- Even if general term alimony is possible, in certain circumstances the judge can limit it to rehabilitative alimony.
- If the Court orders a party to maintain life insurance, the insurance required must have a relationship to the parties’ financial obligation
- All income, including bonuses, must be included in the alimony calculation.
Rehabilitative alimony can only last for 5 years. General term alimony in the circumstances of the Zaleski case would have lasted 13 years. This decision makes it very clear that the judge does have discretion to look at the circumstances of the case, including the wife’s prior earning and employment history, and order rehabilitative alimony. Unsaid but implied is the factual question: If the wife cannot find employment, or can only find poorly paying employment, then she can seek to modify for the longer term.
With a new law as far reaching as this, no case can answer every question. This case does leave very open the disparity between the wife’s prior highest earnings ($170,000) and the husband’s earnings, (base $400,000, bonuses in the $200,000 – $300,000 range). If the wife does manage to become reemployed at a similar salary, then she might be able to argue based on her need and the husband’s continued high earnings that she receives general term alimony based on a calculation that includes her income.
I am sure there will be more cases to come as the courts and the divorce bar come to grips with the major changes wrought by the Alimony Reform Act.